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Friday, September 29, 2000

Losers become true winners

  SYDNEY -- We salute you, Jane Saville.

 You have budged the cynics, moved the faithful and touched everyone in between.

 Just when you think everything connected to the Olympics is hopelessly tainted, along comes a Jane Saville to restore faith, if not in the Games, then at least in some of the people who contest them.

 Saville is a 25-year-old Sydney resident who works in a dentist's office. She is also the world's most famous racewalker, the woman informed of her third and killing violation moments before she was to enter Olympic Stadium and stride over the finish line as the winner of the 20-kilometre walk.

 And here are the words she choked out between sobs: "These judges don't make mistakes. I must work on my technique."

 Jane Saville did not claim someone tampered with her tests.

 That was the excuse proffered by Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor. A team of lawyers successfully pressured the International Amateur Athletic Federation to halve the penalty for Sotomayor's cocaine violation after he tested positive at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. Freed for the Olympics, Sotomayor, won a silver medal.

 Jane Saville did not drag an expert witness to a news conference to claim steroids were ingested by accident. That was the desperate road taken by Marion Jones' husband, shot putter C.J. Hunter.

 Jane Saville did not, as Jones once did, employ Johnnie Cochran to beat a rap when she refused to take a drug test.

 Saville actually accepted a difficult judging decision, took responsibility for her actions and vowed to improve. How did this woman ever get into the Games?

 Cops say the lie is the song of the street. Always within earshot, it also is the background music for the Olympics.

 Eighteen athletes already have been thrown out for drug infractions in Sydney. Countless others have beaten the rap through blood doping or the use of human-growth hormone.

 After her easy win in the women's 200 metres, Jones said she has not been tarred by the the failed drug tests of the man who serves as a husband, coach and father figure.

 "No I don't have that fear," Jones said. "The people who know me, support me, train with me and coach me, know I'm a clean athlete."

 That's nice. That just leaves the rest of the planet to do the doubting for them.

 Rampant cynicism is fuelled as much by USA Track and Field's coverup tactics as by the latest failed tests. And so the Olympics, created to mark human achievement, do the exact opposite. Greatness on the track or in the pool prompts suspicion, not superlatives.

 When unknown Konstantinos Kenteris bolted from the pack to win the men's 200 metres yesterday, the natural story angle wasn't, "Wow, a great Greek sprinter." Instead, it was, "Wow, I wonder how a white guy who did not race outside his country and therefore wasn't subjected to intensive drug testing got so good all of a sudden?"

 Let's put on our thinking caps.

 The 27-year-old Kenteris hadn't won a prestigious international event in six years. The Greeks counter that Kenteris was injured and running in the wrong events before Sydney. If that's the case, 90% of Olympians should immediately hurt their legs and switch disciplines.

 In the skewered values of the Olympic atmosphere, there is only one way to prove yourself above reproach: lose.

 The more spectacular and heartbreaking the defeat, the greater the association from a public hardened to sport's bitter truths.

 And so Jane Saville went to sleep a spectacular loser, but woke up the symbol of what is right about a Games gone wrong.

 Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea nearly drowned in the 100-metre freestyle, but his plucky finish made him a hero.

 This is the lesson of these Games, the lesson that comes when cheaters hide.

 Better a hapless loser than a tainted winner, even if the stain is just suspicion.